The Baltimore Sun reports that only about 40 people attended yesterday's Homeless Persons' Memorial Day vigil in the park next to St. Vincent de Paul Church. The reporter must have ducked out before all the Loyola College kids showed up, because I was passing out fliers and candles, and I put the tally at around twice that number.
Whatever the actual head count was, I'm glad that I was among them yesterday evening, on the longest night of the year. The well-organized event was solemn, naturally, but it was also passionate, inspiring, and spiritually rich.
The memorial service began with an opening prayer by Fr. Salvatore Furnari of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Little Italy. A smiling, soft-spoken man with a molasses-thick Baltimore accent, Fr. Furnari told me before the program started how honored he was to have been invited to speak.
Jeff Singer, president of Healthcare for the Homeless, then introduced the litany of the dead, the 83 homeless Baltimoreans who passed away in the past year. Some died of chronic illness or acute conditions not treated in time, the program read.
Some died on the streets or while staying in emergency or transitional shelter. Some spent the last few months of their lives in their own apartments. Some were able to reconnect with family and friends before they died. Most died alone and, but for a few, forgotten. We remember them here.
After each name was read, everyone intoned quietly, "we will remember." The list included three men listed only as "John Doe." They died within the past week, and to date have not been identified.
Bishop Douglas I. Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church delivered a blistering message on what he called "the shame of Christmas." Recalling the biblical story of the holy family seeking refuge in an inn, Bishop Miles said that "people think this story is about the Christ child. But it's really about a homeless family." He illustrated how Joseph, Mary, and Jesus each represent a different category of people that has been shunned and marginalized throughout history: poor men, women in pain, and helpless children. The shame of Christmas, Bishop Miles said, is that even in the richest nation in the history of the world, there remains no room at the inn for homeless men, women, and children.
Bishop Miles was followed by two representatives of I Can, Inc., a Baltimore transitional shelter facility. The men sang 'Amazing Graze' in swooping, fluttering, yet somehow restrained a capella harmony. By the third verse, most of the crowd was singing or humming along.
The closing was delivered by Rev. William C. Calhoun, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church and head of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Rev. Calhoun provided a necessary focus for the memorial service by telling us that, "it is not enough to remember." We must also take action. We can take action by contributing financially to the organizations that are doing such tremendous work in Baltimore, of course. But we can also take action by giving of our time, by educating the people in our lives about homelessness and the people who suffer from it, and by talking to legislators and other public officials about the need for a better set of policies designed to eradicate homelessness once in for all.
"I never want to have to attend one of these memorial services ever again," Rev. Calhoun shouted, to loud "amens!" from the crowd.
He bowed his head and closed his eyes, and told us that he was going to send us forth with a blessing. Everyone fell silent for a few moments, and it seemed as if he was gathering strength from the very winter air around us. Then the reverend opened his eyes and flung out his hand in a commanding arc reminiscent of casting a fishing line out into still water.
"The Lord bless you and keep you!" The words of the ancient Aaronic blessing, which I've probably heard a hundred times in my life, crackled from his mouth with a power I've rarely encountered. "The Lord make his face to shine down upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord lift up his countenance to you, and give you peace!"
Lowering his voice, he added a coda not found in Numbers 6: "And although the nights are cold, may the Lord protect you and cradle you in the palm of his hand, all the days of your life."
Blinking back tears, I glanced over to my right and saw Fr. Salvatore discreetly wiping his own eyes.
It is not enough to remember. The words of the program for yesterday's service found the perfect quote to bring this point home. "We remember Mother Jones' words to 'pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.'"